By Steve Passey
“You are nothing like your father.”
My mother would say this to me when we argued. In an argument inside your mother’s house nothing is ever left unsaid. “We are both good at math,” I’d say.
She would clench her teeth and go do something away from me.
My father would come to see me on the last Saturday of every month and we’d spend the day together. Invariably our routine was the same. My dad would put his arm around me and walk me out to his car. He had a 1964 Chevrolet Impala Convertible. It was a lustrous black with a white interior. He’d inherited it from his father even though we had not seen my grandfather in years. My dad took good care of it. He told me he only drove it on weekends. He told me he had also bought a Toyota. It was much better on gas. He intended to keep the Impala, but once he hit ten thousand miles on the odometer he was going to store it. “It’ll be worth a lot of money to a collector some day.”
We’d get in the Impala and go to his motel. He was an electrical engineer. He worked for a defense contractor in Lancaster. He’d drive straight from work and get a motel. The next morning, he’d tell my mother we were going to a car show, or a ball game, or to where he worked to see the jets, but we’d go back to the motel first. He always booked a room with two beds on which he laid out our clothes.
The last time we dressed together was the last Saturday in June in 1977. He had laid out a cotton summer dress for himself, white polka dots on blue. He wore pantyhose with it. He always wore pantyhose. Depilation had failed on his legs. On that day they were nude in color but I remember that on some days he wore white. He wore pearls too, and three rings—two on his right hand, platinum and white gold, and a silver one on his left. The silver ring was ancient; it had been his mother’s and his grandmother’s before her. The story in the family was that his grandfather had won it in a mining camp poker game in the late 1920’s and had given it to her as an engagement ring. So my father wore these three rings and that one set of pearls and Chanel No. 5. The real thing too—Parfum, not Eau De Toilette. His eyeliner was very precise, his foundation broadly applied, and his lipstick very red. Once he was done he would dress me. On this particular Saturday he had brought a gingham dress, white and navy blue, the blue a darker blue than that of his own dress. It was sleeveless and very light. He had brought some sandals for me too—white, also very light.
Once I dressed he stood me there in the half-light of the motel room with its heavy curtains drawn and made me turn around. He tsked at my hands and feet and took me into the bathroom to clip my nails. I was in the habit of forgetting them. He had me wash my hands and feet before he trimmed them—he told me it softened the nails and made them easier to clip neatly—you don’t want them to be too brittle and break off unevenly. He had worn driving gloves when he drove the Impala out to my mother’s house and now that they were off I could see that he wore nail polish a soft and muted red, more a plum, a very rich color compared to the overstated maraschino cherry of his lipstick. I perched there on one leg and the other foot in the motel sink and washed each foot and he noted how tall I was getting. He reminded me that there was a time when I could sit up on the counter beside the sink and soak both my hands and feet in the warm and soapy water all at the same time.
The motel soap was strong-smelling and antiseptic, and I walked out with my hands and feet smelling of it with those white sandals on and my nails neat and I could just barely smell my father’s Chanel underneath it all.
Once in the car he wrapped a scarf over over his head, tying it under his chin, and put on sunglasses. He popped his lips to check his lipstick and started the car. He stopped before backing up and looked at me for a long time. “Here,” he said, and while the car idled he took out his lipstick from his purse and dabbed some on me. “You’re old enough to wear a little. You don’t need it, but it looks good. If you look good, you feel good.” He blotted the edges of my mouth with a tissue and popped his lips again at me and I understood this to mean I should do the same and so I popped back.
He drove without his driving gloves then, his bare hands upon the wheel and the sun lightening his nail polish and we’d cruise a bit. We would drive up and down the canyon once, looking at the houses, and sometimes we’d drive up in the Hollywood hills. Sometimes we’d park in the observatory parking lot and just sit there, looking down over the city. My father would constantly adjust his clothing while he talked to me. He’d tell me things about the city and how it used to be when he was growing up and even before he was born. He’d ask how I was doing in school. He took great pride in my math marks.
No matter what else we did we’d end the day with a trip to Phelps’s Pharmacy. He’d drive us to Phelps’s and he’d turn off the radio and sing some doo-wop song he made up and if I wasn’t singing with him he’d shout at me in between verses to join in.
She lights up the room
Brightens everyone’s day
I’d move my head and shoulders with the music but I couldn’t sing. I was shy in my own way. Shy when I was with him.
Phelps’s was a relic even then. It still had a soda counter. An ancient man with a white apron and one of those little white paper hats tended the counter. He didn’t have a name tag but my father always called him “Tony” and the old man always listened without speaking. My father would order us two chocolate malts. Tony would make the malts and put whipped cream and a maraschino cherry on top of each. While Tony was making our malts my father would fidget with his clothes or his pearls and tell me that Lana Turner, a famous actress, was discovered at a counter just like this. She was buying a coke at a pharmacy soda counter and someone saw her and the rest is history. “But don’t worry,” he’d say, “that’s not going to happen to us.” And he’d wink at me and his eyes were a little too bright and his red mouth took the malt off of his spoon while he looked at me. My father had very deep brown eyes. Almost black. We’d slurp our malts in silence and I’d set my cherry aside. I didn’t like them.
When we got up to leave, Tony came over to clean up after us. “You two ladies have a wonderful day, now,” he’d say, without inflection. Tony moved slowly, arthritically. There was rarely anyone else in there. My father reapplied his lipstick in the car and helped me to reapply mine which I did without much enthusiasm. We went back to the motel. It was almost five o’clock when we got there. My father took off his dress and his rings and pearls, and showered. I imagine he took his make-up off in the shower. I undressed while he was in the bathroom, laying the dress out neatly, putting the sandals on the floor beneath the dress, and putting my shorts and tee shirt on and then my socks and runners, the ones with the “waffle” soles. I loved to look at my footprints in dirt or wet ground.
My father would dress and pack quickly, putting my dress and sandals in his small suitcase and we’d leave. He had a brief moment of panic when he could not find his driving gloves until he remembered that he had left them on the seat of the Impala.
On the way back to my mother’s he handed me a broadsheet from a car show with list of vehicles and the names of their owners. “Tell your mother you liked the Corvettes best. The 65’s and 66’s especially.” He dropped me off without getting out himself, and he’d watch me go all the way into the house. My mother would always be in the kitchen; she was never at the door. I could hear my father singing as he pulled away:
She lights up the room
“Did your father feed you?” my mother asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But I’m hungry again.”
She looked at me closely and came over. “What’s this on your mouth?” She held me by the chin.
I had forgotten to take off the lipstick. I popped my lips involuntarily and my hand went to my mouth.
“We had maraschino cherries on our malts after the car show,” I said. “That must be it.”
My mother went to the sink and got a washcloth and ran it under some warm water. She came back over and washed the maraschino red off of my mouth without saying another word. I looked away from her and out the kitchen window and tried to think about nothing.
I sang in my head.
A few days later I came home from school and my mother told me that she had enrolled me in soccer. I was old enough and it would be good for me. She knew I liked soccer. Games were Saturdays.
“What about Daddy?” I asked. “Do I still go with him on the last Saturday of the month?
“No,” she said, her back to me. “He can come and watch you play baseball. I have discussed it with him and he thinks you should play soccer, too.”
She bought me cleats and I liked them even more than my Nike waffle-soles. I’d walk out on the field and when I crossed from the grass to the dirt I’d look back at the neat impressions left by the cleats.
My father came on the last Saturday of July and watched me play. He sat by himself, with the other team’s parents. My mother and my aunt Anne sat on our side. After the game he came up and put an arm around me and told me that I’d played well and that he was really proud of me. I showed him my cleats and the impressions that they made in the ground and he seemed to like them too. I asked if we were going to go get a malt or something and he apologized, said that he needed to get back into the city, and that he had not brought the Impala anyways, he had been afraid it might rain.
He came to the last game of the summer, on the last Saturday of August. He sat by himself again. He had a black eye and a red scrape on his forehead.
“What happened to you?” I asked after the game.
He looked at me and his eyes seemed very dark and very sad.
“Nothing,” he said. “A silly accident. Nothing to brag about.”
He told me I had played well and that he was proud of me. He admired my cleats again. He had driven his Toyota again and I asked him if he thought it might rain on him on the way back.
“Not at all,” he said. “The Impala has crossed ten-thousand miles. I bought a cover for it and it’s in the garage.”
He put his arm around me and squeezed me firmly. Underneath the odor of my own sweat, baseball glove oil, and mown grass drying in the sun I could smell the faintest hint of his Chanel.
That was the last time I saw him.
My father moved to Seattle in September. He’d gotten a position with another defense contractor. Cards came on birthdays and Christmas, and inside them cash. I grew up, fought with my mother a lot, and moved out when I went to school. My marks were always good. I’d remember telling my father my marks when we’d sit at the observatory on days so sunny they could only be in California and we both wore lipstick. The cards quit coming, and I lost touch.
My mother died of lung cancer, of menthols and vodka and sitting. At her funeral I asked Aunt Anne if anyone had thought to tell my father. She just looked at me. A few days later she came over with a manila envelope. “Someone should have shown you this a long time ago,” she said.
My father had died ten years before my mother. He had been found naked at the bottom of a motel swimming pool by the maintenance people in Key West, Florida. There was an examiner’s report. It noted his age, his height and weight and I remember being surprised at how small he was. He was not a large man at all, this man, my father. He had no birthmarks, significant scars, or identifying marks save for the red nail polish he was wearing when he was found.
I knew that had to be wrong—“red” was not quite right. It would have been dark, more of a plum color and not something bright and plastic that "red” implied. Aubergine? Yes, aubergine. I forget where I learned the word, but I knew where I had first seen the color. Yes, aubergine. It suited him better than “red.”
“Death by Misadventure” was the opinion of the examiner. My father had gotten drunk and drowned. I don’t know if there was more to it. I do not want to believe that there was, but the report seemed too simple to be correct. It had no nuance, no insight. It was to his passing what red is to aubergine.
No one had claimed his body. In accordance with the laws of the state of Florida, he was cremated and interred in a municipal cemetery in a plot marked with a number.
I put the things back in the folder and returned it to Aunt Anne.
“He did have life insurance,” she told me. “Your mother was the beneficiary. Even after all their years apart. I suppose it was his way of looking after you.”
“Do you remember his car? The convertible? The black Impala? “
“I do,” she said. “Vaguely. The one he inherited from his father, your grandfather?”
“Yes. Do you know what happened to it? Did he have a will? A list of his possessions? There was nothing in the envelope.”
She shook her head.
I wonder what happened to the car. In my mind’s eye I see it parked in the observatory lot on a cloudless summer afternoon looking as new as the day it was purchased. The sun shines and the chrome and vinyl gleam and I can smell the heat coming off of the engine, and underneath that the faintest hint of perfume.
Steve Passey is from Southern Alberta. His fiction and poetry have appeared in publications in Canada, the UK and the USA including Existere Journal of Art & Literature, Minor Literature[s], and Sunstruck Magazine among others.